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Texas Ranger

After spending the night at the nearby Guadalupe River Ranch, we rise the next morning just as the fog over the Hill Country is lifting, which is a particularly thrilling sight from our second-story suite. We walk to the restaurant, a timber-and-limestone structure that used to be the hideaway home of actress Olivia de Havilland, and each have a cinnamon roll the size of a Jeep Cherokee. Like Mariposa and Chain-O-Lakes, Guadalupe has had quite a past. Before Ms. de Havilland's arrival, it was a turkey ranch, then a "chicken ranch" (in Texas, a well-known euphemism for a place with gambling and girls). Now it has become less a place to sleep overnight than a living museum and a unique cultural experience.

Later in the day we head out on I-10 and make a stop at the Caverns of Sonora, which prove to be even more spectacular than the descriptions we've often heard but have never quite believed. For almost two hours we meander underground, looking at a gleaming fairyland of stalactites, stalagmites, and helictites, including one that looks positively like a butterfly.

We decide to stay in nearby Ozona (population 3,700) because an old friend has always spoken fondly of this "oasis" in the west Texas desert. I ask a motel clerk about the best place to eat in town, and she recommends the Hitchin' Post Steakhouse—as the name implies, a throwback to the golden age of steak houses with corrugated-aluminum roofs and waitresses who say "fixin' to." Most steak houses these days—even in Texas—feel inauthentic, but the Hitchin' Post is the real thing; my "gourmet chicken-fried steak" is 12 ounces of tender rib eye breaded and deep fried to insidious perfection.

"Bring me my heart attack!" demands a stout cowboy who ordered the same thing.

We make the final part of our drive across the rest of the desert to the Big Bend region—a trip I've done countless times. Even with the growth of various desert towns along the way—Fort Stockton, for instance—and the inevitable intrusion of fast-food arches on the horizon, it is still possible to get lost in time and space out here, so much so that when you finally reach the town of Marfa, in the far west of Texas, you end up feeling more as if you've awakened than arrived.

Marfa (population 2,424) is best known as the location where the movie Giantwas filmed. But in recent years it's been repeatedly described as the new Santa Fe. This, for better or worse, makes some sense. Like the Santa Fe of 50 years ago, Marfa is arid, big-skied, mostly Latino,and home to a major private museum, the late minimalist sculptor Donald Judd's internationally renowned Chinati Foundation. It has a lovely restored Victorian courthouse, a rehabilitated old hotel (the Paisano), a number of terrific Mexican restaurants, and a growing population of artists.

There are Big Bend purists I know who insist that this is the end of Texas as we all know and love it. But based on the Marfa I see—and the Ozona and Comfort I saw—there's not too much cause for concern.

The Cibolo Creek Ranch, which is located about 30 miles due south, is another fine example of a certain sort of progress that doesn't soil the soul of a place. While some people might call this just another expensive dude ranch, what the clerk tells us at check-in rings more true. "Watch out for the snakes," she says, perkily.

Even though Cibolo has gotten entirely too much ink—due in large part to its prices, celebrity guests like Mick Jagger, and the no-expense-spared res-toration of the three 19th-century forts that serve as its residences—the feeling of the place is hardly upscale or resorty.

Just check in and take a trail ride with the Mexican-American cowboy guide named Elmer, as we do, and you'll understand. This ride seems a fitting way to end our journey across six distinct ecologies—the final one being these craggy mesas and deep valleys studded with yucca and sagebrush that look a little like the landscape you see behind the young Clint Eastwood in spaghetti western movies.

We ride for nearly two hours without encountering another soul. Even the solitude is the real thing out here. That hasn't changed in decades, and I doubt it ever will.

JIM ATKINSON is a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly and contributes to GQ, Esquire, and Gourmet.

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